Government must take ‘perilous’ case of Egypt activist ‘much more seriously’

Amnesty International has called on the Government to take the case of imprisoned pro-democracy activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah “much more seriously” as his family warned he feels “ready to die”.

The charity said “nothing appears to be happening” to free the 40-year-old British-Egyptian writer from Wadi El Natrun prison in Cairo, where he has been incarcerated for most of the past decade.

It comes after Mr Abd El-Fattah’s sister, Mona Seif, said that his physical health had “deteriorated severely” over the last two weeks following a hunger strike.

His family also said he had endured a “near-death experience” in prison after banging his head against a wall so hard it bled because he no longer wants to exist in its confines.

Alaa Abd el-Fattah detained
Mona Seif (right) with her sister Sanaa speaking outside the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in central London where they staged a protest for their brother earlier this month (Stefan Rousseau/PA).

Freshta Sharif, a campaign manager at Amnesty International UK, said the Government is failing to make progress on the urgent case despite Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking to Egyptian officials at Cop27 earlier this month.

Speaking about the decline in Mr Abd El-Fattah’s health, Ms Sharif said: “It’s distressing to hear this, and it’s yet another reminder that UK ministers have got to start taking Alaa’s fate much more seriously than they’ve been doing up to now.

“Rishi Sunak raised Alaa’s case with President Sisi a week-and-a-half ago, but nothing appears to be happening on the UK side to show that the Government is escalating its response.

“Once again, we’re saying that the Prime Minister and others in Government should be insisting on UK consular access to Alaa to check on his perilous condition and to ascertain what independent medical care he needs.”

Ms Sharif added that the Government “can and must” secure Mr Abd El-Fattah’s release and asked it to “conduct an urgent human rights impact assessment” of its trade dealings with Egypt in light of his case and others.

She said that with the conclusion of Cop27 on Friday it is “more important than ever that Egypt’s cruel treatment of Alaa is robustly challenged”.

Mr Abd El-Fattah’s sister Mona gave an update on his health after some of their relatives visited him in prison on Thursday.

Writing on Twitter, Ms Seif said: “News from the visit is unsettling, @alaa deteriorated severely in the past two weeks, but at least they got to see him, and he needed to see the family so much.

“The family will share the full details later today, please bear with us.”

Mr Abd El-Fattah’s aunt, Ahdaf Soueif, later told journalists in a statement read at the family’s Cairo home that he was “exhausted, weak and vulnerable” and looked “very, very thin” on Thursday, according to the Associated Press (AP).

The family also said that he told them he had repeatedly hit his head against a wall until it bled in an attempt to force the authorities to file an incident report, and was restrained by staff.

They added that he collapsed in the shower and woke surrounded by his cellmates with an IV in his arm on November 11.

Mr Abd El-Fattah’s aunt said he described this as a “near-death experience”, adding that “there was a strong part of him that was ready to die”.

Earlier on Thursday, Ms Seif shared a photograph on Twitter of their mother, Laila Soueif, in the waiting area of the Egyptian prison ahead of seeing her son for the first time in more than three weeks.

Alongside the photo, Ms Seif said: “The past two weeks seemed like a lifetime on their own: water strike, no communication or info, needing a proof of life.

“I am glad she will finally see him.”

In a letter to the writer’s other sister, Sanaa Seif, on November 5 – the day before Cop27 commenced – Mr Sunak described the conference as an “opportunity to raise your brother’s case with the Egyptian leadership”.

He added that Middle East minister Lord Ahmad would update the family on the progress of negotiations after the Sharm El-Sheikh summit.

Alaa Abd el-Fattah detained
Photograph of the letter sent by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to Sanaa Seif, the sister of writer Alaa Abd el-Fattah on November 5 (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) did not directly respond to questions about whether the family would receive an update on Mr Abd El-Fattah’s case by the end of this week.

An FCDO spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister raised Mr Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s case with Egyptian President Sisi on November 7 and made clear his expectation that the case is resolved swiftly.

“Our priority is Mr El-Fattah’s welfare and securing his immediate release.”

The department added that it has been providing consular support to Mr Abd El-Fattah’s family and has requested urgent consular access for the prisoner.

Cop27 summit
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak addresses delegates during the Cop27 summit at Sharm El-Sheikh on November 7 (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Mr Abd El-Fattah is currently serving a five-year sentence on charges of disseminating false news for retweeting a report in 2019 that another prisoner had died in custody.

Since April he has either refused food entirely or been on a partial hunger strike, taking just 100 calories a day, and even spent a week without water, according to the campaign for his release.

He intensified his hunger strike by halting all calories and water at the start of Cop27 to draw attention to his case.

It is believed that authorities began a medical intervention on November 10, prompting suggestions he was being force-fed, and his family received a note in what they believe is his handwriting saying: “I’ve broken my strike”.